7 Tips for Handling a High Prey Drive in Your Dog


Now that the fall has fully settled in the area where we live, it’s pretty common to see a lot of squirrels running around gathering up nuts and nest material for the coming snow. My backyard is full of the little things, going to and fro between all the trees. They like to snatch up feathers from the hens, and they really like to steal bits of corn from the girls as well. Janice and Leroy are, naturally, not very amused by this behavior. Usually, I just have to hear a bit of barking when the squirrels get really busy, but yesterday, Leroy decided he’d had enough. A few squirrels got a bit of a wakeup call when he took off after them, and it took me several calls to get him to come back.

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That got me thinking about dogs’ prey drives, and how it can take a dog a few seconds to respond to their training, no matter how well trained they are, to override that instinct. If you are a new dog owner, you may be surprised at the way that dogs just can’t resist chasing sometimes. But that’s not always a good thing. Managing a very high prey drive is a priority if you have your dog in public often, or if you have a small pet like a rabbit or a gerbil in the house. So, today, I wanted to share with you what I know about prey drives, and some tips for handling a dog that has a hard time resisting his prey drive. I’ll also give you some suggestions for books and other resources where you can learn more.

Understanding Prey Drive and the Controversy Surrounding the Term

Dogs are technically descended from wolves, though today, most of their wolf-like instincts have been replaced with the things that we have taught them over centuries. For example, most dogs don’t have the urge to form packs and hunt down large animals like deer or moose. But they do have an intense need to be useful, to have some kind of job. This is because we’ve taught them, through centuries of breeding, that this is what gives their life purpose. (That’s called domesticating an animal, and is a topic for another time.) But the point here is: dogs are descended from wolves, which means that at a very base level, they are predators.

All predators have a drive to hunt prey. It’s how they get food in the wild, and a dog that isn’t getting fed properly (like a stray) will revert back to this behavior pretty quickly because hunger can kill. Even dogs that are being fed and cared for can still be triggered by the sight of what they see as easy prey. Here are the behaviors that you’ll see when your dog has slipped into his “hunting prey” mode:

  • His eyes will focus on the prey and nothing else.
  • His body will be oriented towards the prey. You’ll see him angling his feet and body towards the animal.
  • He may begin to stalk the animal by crouching low and moving slowly towards it.
  • He may chase the animal if it begins to run.
  • The next stage is grabbing the animal or biting at it.
  • If the grabbing is successful, he will either bite it or kill it.
  • The next phase is dissecting the kill, which means he’s pulling the animal apart to make it easier to eat. He may remove its head, limbs, or simply maul into the body.
  • The final stage of the prey drive is to eat the animal that was killed.

Obviously not all stages happen every time. Your dog may not have time to stalk if the prey begins to run right away. Your dog may let the prey go after catching it, especially if he’s not actually hungry. Some dogs treat this type of behavior as play, and may honestly believe they are just playing with the animal.

But this instinctual desire to find, pursue, and capture prey is what is known as the prey drive. Some dogs have this drive much more strongly than other dogs. The way that dogs play as puppies will often mimic this behavior. You’ll see puppies stalking each other, chasing, capturing each other, “play biting”, and so on. This wrestling is how puppies learn how to be successful hunters in the wild, and it’s an important part of dog development. The only time that this typically presents a problem is when dogs of vastly different sizes are playing together – the larger dog could potentially hurt the smaller dog because they haven’t learned to be gentle during their play. Additionally, the size of the smaller dog could signal “prey” in the mind of the larger dog in some cases.

If you have a dog that has a high prey drive, there are a couple of problems you may come across. First, they may chase small animals and not respond to your call to heel. This could lead to them getting lost, getting hit by a car, or putting other people in danger. Second, they may accidentally harm a pet, such as a cat, a pet rodent, a bird, or a smaller dog.  Both of these issues are very serious and should be addressed as soon as possible. Here are my top seven tips for handling a high prey drive.

Tips for Handling a High Prey Drive

  1. Give them a safe place where they are contained. If your dog chases squirrels, rabbits, or other small wild things, they need a place where they will be safely contained. A fenced-in back yard will be one of the best things you can do to keep your dog safe.
  1. Encourage eye contact and “check ins”. The very first stage of the prey drive instinct is to lock eyes on the prey. Teach your dog to check in with you, and to make eye contact with you, regularly when playing outdoors. This habit will help break that initial “locked on target” mode, and get your dog back into playing with you. You can teach them this habit by training them to follow the command “watch me” or “eyes here” or anything like that, while holding a training treat.

Teaching a dog to “check in” with you requires a bit more patience, but it’s pretty easy. Take your dog to a field with nothing around, and ignore them (while keeping a close eye on them from the corner of your eye). As soon as they look at you without you paying attention to them, praise them. This teaches them to check in with you without you having to command them to do so.

  1. Teach them to drop down on command. Teaching your dog to “drop down” (or lay down) on command will put a stop in their stalking behavior.
  1. Teach them to come away on command. Working hard to teach your dog to come away from something that they are interested in will be one of the best things you can do to keep your dog safe when the prey drive kicks in.
  1. Supervise or separate at home. At home, you need to be sure you supervise your dog when they are playing with another pet, especially one that is smaller than they are. This goes double for a pet of another species. If you can’t supervise, then it’s best to keep these pets separated for everyone’s safety.
  1. Have an emergency stash of training aids. Once your dog gets a good handle on their commands, and has gone years without any problems, you’ll probably start to get lax on having training aids like treats or a clicker with you. However, it’s always a good idea to have the aids that work for your dog on hand when you’ll be in a new place or in public – just in case.
  1. Teach them to leave it on command. Another very important command that your dog with a high prey drive needs to know is “leave it” or “drop it”. The point of this command is to get them to let go of something they’ve got in their mouth. This will be your last resort command for when they’re near the end of their prey drive cycle. It may end up saving the life of a small animal, or it will at least prevent them from eating a wild creature – which could carry diseases like rabies.

Resources for Understanding Prey Drive

There are tons of resources out there for understanding prey drive in dogs better, especially when it comes to their play habits. However, if you want to get really deep into the behavior science at work, and figure out how to train your dog in a way that makes the prey drive work for you rather than against you, I’ve got some book recommendations. (What, Ash wants us to read dog books? No! Yes, my friends, I do a lot of reading about dogs. It’s a fascinating topic of study. And in my defense, Janice and Leroy seem to enjoy the fact that I work hard to understand their needs.)

Play Together, Stay Together: Happy and Healthy Play Between People and Dogs” by Karen London discusses how to play with your dog in a way that they understand and need to develop healthy behaviors.


Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog” by John Paul Scott is a very detailed science text about dog behavior and how it relates to their wild ancestors. This is a good look at how that wolf instinct is still present in dogs to some extent.


Dominance in Dogs: Fact or Fiction” by Barry Easton is a good look at dominance theory, which relates directly to the idea of the prey drive. Both ideas are a bit controversial in the field of canine behavioral science, and this book does a good job of approaching both sides in my opinion.


Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behaviors, and Evolution” by Lorna Coppinger is a very modern take on the latest scientific discoveries about dogs and why they act the way they do.

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The Final Verdict

At the end of the day, your dog is still a domesticated animal. The species is largely docile and eager to be of use to their human companion. This article isn’t intended to scare you into thinking your dog is about to attack any small dog or cat they see!

What it is intended to do is to ensure that you understand that dogs are technically predators, and they do still have some predatory instincts. For most dogs, this is only seen when they are playing, and it never escalates beyond some frisky fun. But for others, it can lead to aggression, and it’s best to nip that in the bud before it can get out of hand.

Understanding prey drive, where it comes from, and what it looks like, can help you know if your dog has a high prey drive. If you find that your dog does tend to get distracted by their prey drive, then you can use the seven tips in this article to help them avoid injuring themselves or another animal or person. And do take a peek at those books if you want to learn more. They are full of great information that will help you understand how to best implement your training in a way that your dog will respond to. That keeps everyone safe, which is always the goal.

Now that I’ve revisited what I know about prey drive, I’ll be doing some extra work with Leroy in the coming weeks, to be sure he gets a good refresher on what he’s supposed to be doing outside. That way, I’ll be able to trust that he’ll behave when we head to the dog park again. Until I can trust that he’ll listen immediately again, however, it’s back on the leash for him.